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The Archaic Age

The term Archaic Age, meaning the “Old-Fashioned Age” and designating Greek history from approximately 750 to 500 B.C., stems from art history. Modern scholars of Greek art judged the style of works from this period as looking more old fashioned than the more naturalistic art of the following period (the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), which they saw as producing models of beauty and therefore named the Classical Age. Archaic sculptors, for example, made free-standing figures who stood stiffly, staring straight ahead in imitation of Egyptian statuary. By the Classical Age, sculptors depicted their subjects in more varied and lively poses. During the Archaic Age the Greeks developed the most widespread and influential of their new political forms, the city-state, or polis .

The Characteristics of the City-state (Polis)

Polis, from which we derive our term “politics,” is usually translated as “city-state” to emphasize its difference from what we today normally think of as a city. As in many earlier states in the ancient Near East, the polis included not just an urban center, often protected by stout walls in later centuries, but also countryside for some miles around with its various small settlements. Members of the polis, then, lived both in the town at its center and also in the villages scattered around its territory.1 Presiding over the polis as protector and patron was a particular god, as, for example, Athena at Athens2. Different communities could chose the same deity as their protector; Sparta, Athens' chief rival3 in the Classical period, also had Athena as its patron god4. The members of a polis constituted a religious association obliged to honor the state's patron deity as well as the community's other gods. The community expressed official homage and respect to the gods through its cults, which were regular sets of public religious activities overseen by citizens serving as priests and priestesses and paid for at public expense. The central ritual of a city-state's cults was the sacrifice5 of animals to demonstrate to the gods as divine protectors the respect and piety of the members of the polis.

Citizenship and the City-state

A polis was independent of its neighbors and had political unity among its settlements. Together the members of these settlements made up a community of citizens comprising a political state, and it was this partnership among citizens6 that represented the distinctive political characteristic of the polis. Only men had the rights of political participation, but women still counted as citizens of the community legally, socially, and religiously. The Greeks may have been influenced in the organization of the polis by their contacts with the Near East, where the city-monarchies of Cyprus and the states of Phoenicia, situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, provided possible precedents. The distinctiveness of citizenship as an organizing concept was that it assumed in theory certain basic levels of legal equality7, essentially the expectation of equal treatment under the law, with the exception that different regulations could apply to women in certain areas of life such as acceptable sexual behavior and the control of property. But the general legal equality that the polis provided was not dependent on a citizen's wealth. Since pronounced social differentiation between rich and poor had characterized the history of the ancient Near East and Greece of the Mycenaean Age and had once again become common in Greece by the late Dark Age, it is remarkable that a notion of some sort of legal equality, no matter how incomplete it may have been in practice, came to serve as the basis for the reorganization of Greek society in the Archaic Age. The polis based on citizenship remained the preeminent form of political and social organization in Greece from the time of its earliest appearance about 750 B.C. until the beginning of the Roman Empire eight centuries later. The other most common new form of political organization in Greece was the ethnos 8 (“league” or “federation”), a flexible form of association over a broad territory which was itself sometimes composed of city-states.

Geography and the Population of City-states

The geography of Greece greatly influenced the process by which this radically new way of organizing human communities came about. The severely mountainous terrain of the mainland meant that city-states were often physically separated by significant barriers to easy communication, thus reinforcing the tendency of city-states to develop separately and not to cooperate with one another. A single Greek island could be home to multiple city-states maintaining their independence from one another; the large island of Lesbos9, for example, was the home for five different city-states. Since few city-states controlled enough arable land to grow food sufficient to feed a large body of citizens, polis communities no larger than several hundred to a couple of thousand people were normal even after the population of Greece rose dramatically at the end of the Dark Age. By the fifth century Athens had grown to a size of perhaps forty thousand adult male citizens and a total population, including slaves and other non-citizens, of several hundred thousand people, but this was a rare exception to the generally small size of Greek city-states. A population as large as that of classical Athens could be supported only by the regular importation of food10 from abroad, which had to be financed by trade and other revenues.

Aristotle on the City-state

The most famous ancient analyst of Greek politics and society, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), later insisted the emergence of the polis had been the inevitable result of the forces of nature at work. “Humans,” he said, “are beings who by nature live in a polis.”11 Anyone who existed outside the community of a polis, Aristotle only half-jokingly maintained, must be either a beast or a deity. In referring to nature, Aristotle meant the combined effect of social and economic forces.

Early Colonization

Some Greeks had emigrated from the mainland eastward across the Aegean Sea to settle in Ionia12 as early as the ninth century B.C. Starting around 750 B.C., however, Greeks began to settle even farther outside the Greek homeland. Within two hundred years, Greek colonies were established in areas that are today southern France, Spain, Sicily and southern Italy, and along North Africa and the coast of the Black Sea. Eventually the Greek world had perhaps as many as 1,500 different city-states. A scarcity of arable land certainly gave momentum to emigration from Greece, but the revival of international trade13 in the Mediterranean in this era perhaps provided the original stimulus for Greeks to leave their homeland, whose economy was still struggling. Some Greeks with commercial interests took up residence in foreign settlements, such as those founded in Spain in this period by the Phoenicians from Palestine. The Phoenicians were active in building commercially-motivated settlements throughout the western Mediterranean. Within a century of its foundation sometime before 750 B.C., for example, the Phoenician settlement on the site of modern Cadiz in Spain had become a city thriving on economic and cultural interaction with the indigenous Iberian population.

Economic Motives for Colonization

Like other peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, Greeks also established their own trading posts abroad. Traders from Euboea, for instance, had already established commercial contacts by 800 B.C. with a community located on the Syrian coast at a site now called Al Mina. Men wealthy enough to finance risky expeditions by sea ranged far from home in search of metals. Homeric poetry testifies to the basic strategy of this entrepreneurial commodity trading. In the Odyssey , the goddess Athena once appears disguised as a metal trader to hide her identity from the son of the poem's hero: “I am here at present,” she says to him, “with my ship and crew on our way across the wine-dark sea to foreign lands in search of copper; I am carrying iron now.”14 By about 775 B.C., Euboeans, who seem to have been particularly active explorers, had also established a settlement for purposes of trade on the island of Ischia, in the bay of Naples off southern Italy. There they processed iron ore imported from the Etruscans, who lived in central Italy. Archaeologists have documented the expanding overseas communication of the eighth century by finding Greek pottery at more than eighty sites outside the Greek homeland; for the tenth century, by contrast, only two pots have been found that were carried abroad.

Mother-city and Colony

Learning from overseas traders of likely places to relocate, Greek colonists set out from their “mother city” ( metropolis 15 in Greek), which selected a leader called the “founder” (ktistes ). Even though they were going to establish an independent city-state at their new location, colonists were expected to retain ties with their metropolis. A colony that sided with its metropolis' enemy in a war, for example, was regarded as disloyal. Sometimes the colonists enjoyed a friendly welcome from the local inhabitants where they settled; sometimes they had to fight to win the land for their new community. The colony's founder was in charge of laying out the settlement properly and parceling out the land, as Homer describes in speaking of the foundation of a fictional colony: “So [the founder] led them away, settling them in [a place called] Scheria, far from the bustle of men. He had a wall constructed around the town center, built houses, erected temples for the gods, and divided the land.”16

Demographic Motives for Colonization

Commercial interests perhaps first induced Greeks to emigrate, but greater numbers of them began to move abroad permanently in the mid-eighth century B.C., probably because the population explosion in the late Dark Age had caused a scarcity of land available for farming. Because arable land represented the most desirable form of wealth for Greek men, tensions caused by competition for good land arose in some city-states. Emigration helped solve this problem by sending men without land to foreign regions, where they could acquire their own fields in the territory of colonies founded as new city-states. Since colonizing expeditions were apparently usually all male, wives17 for the colonists had to be found among the locals, either through peaceful negotiation or by violent kidnappings.

The Tensions of Colonization

The case of the foundation of a Greek colony in Cyrene18 (in what is now Libya in North Africa) in about 630 B.C. reveals how full of tensions the process of colonization could be. The people of the polis of Thera, on an island north of Crete, apparently were unable to support their population. Sending some people out as colonists to Cyrene therefore made sense as a solution to population pressures. A later inscription purports to tells us what happened at the time of colonization and reveals the urgency of the situation at the time: “One adult son [from each family] is to be conscripted....If any man is unwilling to leave when the polis sends him, he shall be subject to the death penalty and his property shall be confiscated.” (M. Crawford and D. Whitehead, Archaic and Classical Greece: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation, Cambridge, 1983, no. 16B) Evidently the young men of Thera were reluctant to leave their home for the new colony. This evidence shows, then, that colonization in response to population growth was not always a matter of individual choice of the people feeling the pressure. The possibility of acquiring land in a colony on which a man could perhaps grow wealthy obviously had to be weighed against the terrors of being torn from family and friends to voyage over treacherous seas to regions filled with unknown dangers. Greek colonists had reason to be scared about their future. Moreover, in some cases, colonies were founded to rid the metropolis of undesirables whose presence was causing social unrest. The Spartans, for example, colonized Taras19 (modern Taranto) in southern Italy in 706 B.C. with a group of illegitimate sons whom they could not successfully integrate into their citizen body. These unfortunate outcasts certainly did not go as colonists by their own choice.

Contact with Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations

The participation of Greeks in international trade and in colonization increased their contact with the peoples of Anatolia, Egypt, and the Near East. They admired and envied these older civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean for their wealth, such as the gold of the Phrygian kingdom of Midas20, and their cultural accomplishments, such as the lively pictures of animals on Near Eastern ceramics, the magnificent temples of Egypt, and the alphabets of the Phoenician cities. During the early Dark Age, Greek artists had stopped portraying people or other living creatures in their designs. The pictures they saw on pottery imported from the Near East in the late Dark Age and early Archaic Age influenced them to begin once again to depict figures in their paintings on pots. The style of Near Eastern reliefs and free-standing sculptures also inspired creative imitation in Greek art of the period. When the improving economy of the later Archaic Age allowed Greeks to revive monumental architecture in stone, temples for the worship of the gods emulating Egyptian architectural designs represented the most prominent examples of this new trend in erecting large, expensive buildings. The Greeks began to mint coins in the sixth century B.C., a technology they learned from the Lydians, who invented coinage in the seventh century21. Long after this innovation, however, much economic exchange continued to be made through barter, especially in the Near East. Highly monetized economies took centuries to develop.

Knowledge of writing was the most dramatic contribution of the ancient Near East to Greece as it emerged from its Dark Age. The Greeks probably originally learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians22 to use it for record keeping in business and trade, as the Phoenicians did so well, but they soon started to employ it to record literature such as Homeric poetry. Since the ability to read and write remained unnecessary for most purposes in the predominately agricultural economy of archaic Greece and there were no schools, few people at first learned the new technology of letters.

International Commerce

Success in competing for international markets affected the fortunes of Greek city-states during this period. The city-state of Corinth23, for example, grew prosperous from ship building and its geographical location controlling the narrow isthmus of land connecting northern and southern Greece. Since ships plying the east-west sea lanes of the Mediterranean preferred to avoid the stormy passage around the tip of southern Greece, they commonly off-loaded their cargoes for transshipment on a special roadbed built across the isthmus and subsequent reloading on different ships on the other side. Small ships may even have been dragged over the roadbed from one side of the isthmus to the other. Corinth became a bustling center for shipping and earned a large income from sales and harbor taxes. Taking advantage of its deposits of fine clay and the expertise of a growing number of potters24, Corinth also developed a thriving export trade in fine decorated pottery, which non-Greek peoples such as Etruscans in central Italy seem to have prized as luxury goods25. By the late sixth century B.C., however, Athens began to displace Corinth as the leading Greek exporter of fancy painted pottery, especially after consumers came to prefer designs featuring the red color for which its clay was better suited than Corinth's.

The Oracle at Delphi and Colonization

The Greeks were always careful to solicit approval from their gods before setting out from home, whether for commercial voyages or colonization. The god most frequently consulted about sending out a colony was Apollo in his sanctuary at Delphi26, a hauntingly beautiful spot in the mountains of central Greece. The Delphic sanctuary began to be internationally renowned in the eighth century B.C. because it housed an oracular shrine in which a prophetess, the Pythia27, spoke the will of Apollo in response to questions from visiting petitioners. The Delphic oracle operated for a limited number of days over nine months of the year, and demand for its services was so high that the operators of the sanctuary rewarded generous contributors with the privilege of jumping to the head of the line. The great majority of visitors to Delphi consulted the oracle about personal matters such as marriage and having children. That Greeks hoping to found a colony felt they had to secure the approval of Apollo of Delphi demonstrates the oracle was held in high esteem already as early as the 700s B.C., a reputation that continued to make the oracle a force in Greek international affairs in the centuries to come.

The Emergence of the City-State

The reasons for the change in Greek politics represented by the gradual emergence of the city-state28 in the Archaic Age remain controversial. An insurmountable difficulty to forming a clear interpretation of this complex process is that the surviving evidence for the change mainly concerns Athens, which was not a typical city-state in significant aspects, as in the large size of its population. Much of what we can say about the reasons for the emergence of the city-state therefore applies solely to Athens. Other city-states certainly emerged under varying conditions and with different results. Nevertheless, it seems possible to draw some general conclusions about the slow process through which city-states began to emerge starting around 750 B.C.

The economic revival of the Archaic Age and the growth in the population of Greece evident by the eighth century B.C. certainly gave momentum to the process. Men who managed to acquire substantial property from success in agriculture or commerce could now demand a greater say in political affairs from the hereditary aristocrats, who claimed status based on their family lines. Theognis of Megara, a sixth-century poet whose verses also reflect earlier conditions, gave voice to the distress of aristocrats at the emergence of new avenues to social and political influence: “... men today prize possessions, and noble men marry into “bad” [that is, non-aristocratic] families and “bad” men into noble families. Riches have mixed up lines of breeding ... and the good breeding of the citizens is becoming obscured.” The increase in population in this era probably came mostly in the ranks of the non-aristocratic poor. Such families raised more children, who could help to farm more land, which had been empty for the taking after the depopulation of the early Dark Age. Like the Zeus of Hesiod's Theogony , who acted in response to the injustice of Kronos29, the growing number of poorer non-aristocrats apparently reacted against what they saw as unacceptable inequity in the leadership of aristocrats, who sometimes acted as if they were petty kings in their local territory and dispensed what seemed “crooked”30 justice to those with less wealth and power. This concern for equity and fairness gave a direction to the social and political pressures created by the growth of the population.

Aristocrats and Non-aristocrats in the City-state

For the city-state to be created as a political institution in which all free men had a share, non-aristocratic men had to insist that they deserved equitable treatment31, even if aristocrats were to remain in leadership positions and carry out the policies agreed on by the group. The invention of the concept of citizenship as the basis for the city-state and the extension of citizen status to non-aristocrats responded to that demand. Citizenship above all carried certain legal rights, such as access to courts to resolve disputes, protection against enslavement by kidnapping, and participation in the religious and cultural life of the city-state. It also implied participation in politics, although the degree of participation open to poor men varied among the different city states. The ability to hold public office, for example, could be limited in some cases to owners of a certain amount of property or wealth. Most prominently, citizen status distinguished free men and women32 from slaves33 and metics (resident aliens)34, foreigners who were officially granted limited legal rights and permission to reside in a city-state that was not their homeland. Thus, even the poor had a distinction setting themselves apart from others.

Inequality and Women in the City-state

Social and economic inequality among citizens persisted as part of life in the polis despite the legal guarantees of citizenship, The incompleteness of the equality that underlay the political structure of the city-state especially revealed itself in the status of citizen women. Women became citizens of the city-states in the crucial sense that they had an identity, social status, and local rights denied metics and slaves. The important difference between citizen and non-citizen women was made clear in the Greek language, which included terms meaning “female citizen”35 (politis), in certain religious cults reserved for citizen women only, and in legal protection against being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Citizen women also had recourse to the courts in disputes over property and other legal wrangles, but they could not represent themselves and had to have men speak for their interests, a requirement that reveals their inequality under the law. The traditional paternalism of Greek society—men acting as “fathers” to regulate the lives of women and safeguard their interests as defined by men—demanded that every woman have an official male guardian ( kurios 36 ) to protect them physically and legally. In line with this assumption about the need of women for regulation and protection by men, women were granted no rights to participate in politics. They never attended political assemblies, nor could they vote. They did hold certain civic priesthoods, however, and they had access along with men to the initiation rights37 of the popular cult of the goddess38 Demeter at Eleusis near Athens. This internationally renowned cult, about which more is said elsewhere in the Overview39, served in some sense as a safety valve for the pressures created by the remaining inequalities of life in Greek city-states because it offered to all regardless of class its promised benefits of protection from evil and a better fate in the afterworld.

The so-called Hoplite Revolution

Despite the only limited equality characteristic of the Greek city-state, the creation of this new form of political organization nevertheless represented a significant break with the past, and the extension of at least some political rights to the poor stands as one of the most striking developments in this process of change. Unfortunately we cannot identify with certainty the forces that led to the emergence of the polis as a political institution in which even poor men had a vote on political matters. The explanation long favored by many makes a so-called hoplite revolution responsible for the general widening of political rights in the city-state, but recent research has undermined the plausibility of this theory as a completely satisfactory explanation. Hoplites40 were infantrymen clad in metal body armor41, and they constituted the main strike force of the citizen militias that defended Greek city-states in the period before navies became important. Men armed as hoplites marched into combat shoulder to shoulder in a rectangular formation called a phalanx42. Staying in line and working as part of the group was the secret to successful phalanx tactics. A good hoplite, in the words of the seventh-century B.C. poet Archilochus, was “a short man firmly placed upon his legs, with a courageous heart, not to be uprooted from the spot where he plants his feet.” Greeks had fought in phalanxes for a long time, but until the eighth century B.C., only aristocrats and a relatively small number of their non-aristocratic followers could afford the equipment to serve as hoplites. In the eighth century B.C., however, a growing number of men had become sufficiently prosperous to buy metal weapons, especially since the use of iron had made them more readily available. Presumably these new hoplites, since they paid for their own equipment and trained hard to learn phalanx tactics to defend their community, felt they, too, were entitled to political rights. According to the theory of a hoplite revolution, these new hoplite-level men forced the aristocrats to share political power by threatening to refuse to fight and thereby cripple the community's military defense.

The theory correctly assumes that new hoplites had the power to demand an increased political say for themselves, a development of great significance for the development of the city-state as an institution not solely under the power of a small circle of aristocrats. The theory of a hoplite revolution cannot explain, however, one crucial question: why were poor men as well as hoplites given the political right of voting on policy in the city-state?

Non-hoplites as Citizens

Most men in the new city-states were too poor to qualify as hoplites. It is usually assumed that poor men most likely could contribute little to military defense because they lacked hoplite armor and metal weapons and Greek armies at this date made scant use of light-armed troops43 like skirmishers, slingers, and archers44. Nor had the Greeks developed navies yet, the military service for which poor men would provide the manpower in later times when a fleet was a city-state's most effective weapon. If being able to make a contribution to the city-state's defense as a hoplite45 was the only grounds for meriting the political rights of citizenship, the aristocrats along with the old and new hoplites had no obvious reason to grant poor men the right to vote on important matters. Yet poor men did become politically empowered citizens in many city-states, with some variations on whether a man had to own a certain amount of land to have full political rights or whether eligibility for higher public offices required a certain level of income. In general, however, all male citizens, regardless of their level of wealth, eventually were entitled to attend, speak in, and cast a vote in the communal assemblies46 in which policy decisions for the city-states were made. That poor men gradually came to participate in the assemblies of the city-states means they were citizens possessing the basic component of political equality47. The hoplite revolution fails as a complete explanation of the development of the city-state above all because it cannot account for the extension of this right to the poor. Furthermore, the emergence of large numbers of men wealthy enough to afford hoplite armor seems to belong to the middle of the seventh century B.C., well after the period when the city-state as an innovative form of political organization was first coming into existence.

The Contribution of the Poor

No thoroughly satisfactory alternative or complement to the theory of hoplite revolution has yet emerged to explain the rise of the polis as a political organization that opened citizenship to poor citizens as well as those better off48. The laboring free poor—the workers in agriculture, trade, and crafts—contributed much to the economic strength of the city-state, but it is hard to see how their value as laborers49 could have been translated into political rights. The better-off elements in society certainly did not extend the rights of citizenship to the poor out of any romanticized vision of poverty as spiritually noble. As one contemporary put it, “Money is the man; no poor man ever counts as good or honorable.” One significant boost to extending political rights to the poor perhaps came from the sole rulers, called tyrants50, who seized power for a time in some city-states and whose history will be discussed subsequently. Tyrants could have used grants of citizenship to poor or disenfranchised men as a means of marshaling popular support for their regimes. Another, more speculative possibility is that the aristocrats and hoplites51 had simply become less cohesive as a political group in this period of dramatic change, thereby weakening opposition to the growing idea that it was unjust to exclude the poor from political participation. When the poor agitated for power in the citizen community, on this view, there would have been no united front of aristocrats and hoplites to oppose them, making compromise necessary to prevent destructive civil unrest. Or it may be that we underestimate the significance of lightly-armed combatants in the eighth century, when hoplites were presumably not as numerous as in later times and perhaps the sheer force of the numbers of poor men—wielding staves, throwing rocks, employing farming implements as weapons—could have helped their city-state's contingent of hoplites to sway the tide of battle against an opposing force.

Communal Decision Making

The hallmark of the politics of the developed Greek city-states52 was certainly the practice of the citizen men making decisions communally. Aristocrats continued to be powerfully influential in Greek politics even after city-states had come into existence, but the unprecedented political influence non-aristocratic men came to enjoy in city-states constituted the most remarkable feature of the change in the political organization of Greek society in the Archaic Age. This process was gradual, as city-states certainly did not suddenly emerge fully formed around 750 B.C. Three hundred years after that date, for example, the male citizens of Athens were still making major changes in their political institutions to disperse political power more widely among the male citizen body.

Slavery in Dark-Age Greece

The only evidence for slavery in the Dark Age—the language of the poetry of Homer and Hesiod—reveals complex relationships of dependency among free and unfree people. Some people taken prisoner in war seem to be chattel slaves (slaves53 regarded as property, like cattle—hence the term), wholly under the domination of others, who benefit from the captives' labor. Other dependent people in the poems seem more like inferior members of the owners' households. They live under virtually the same conditions as their superiors and enjoy a family life of their own. If the language of this poetry reflects actual conditions in the Dark Age, chattel slavery was not the primary form of dependency in Greece during that period.

The Synergy between Slavery and Freedom

The creation of citizenship as a category to define membership in the exclusive group of people constituting a polis inevitably highlighted the contrast between those included in the category of citizens and those outside it. Freedom from control by others was a necessary precondition to become a citizen with full political rights, which in the city-states meant being a free-born adult male. The strongest contrast citizenship produced, therefore, was that between free and unfree. In this way, the development of a clear idea of personal freedom in the formation of the city-state as a new political form may ironically have encouraged the complementary development of chattel slavery in the Archaic Age. The rise in economic activity in this period probably also encouraged the importation of slaves by increasing the demand for labor. In any case, slavery as it developed in the Archaic Age reduced unfree persons to a state of absolute dependence; they were the property of their owners. As Aristotle later categorized them, slaves54 were “living tools.”55

Sources of Slaves

Captives taken in war provided an important source of slaves56, and relatively few slaves seem to have been born and raised in the households of those for whom they worked. Slaves were also imported from the regions to the north and east of Greek territory, where non-Greek people would be seized by pirates or foreign raiders. The fierce bands in these areas would also capture each other and sell the captives to slave dealers. The dealers would then sell their purchases in Greece at a profit. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century B. C., reported that some of the Thracians57, a group of peoples living to the north of mainland Greece, “sold their children for export.” But this report probably meant only that one band of Thracians sold children captured from other bands of Thracians, whom the first group considered different from themselves. The Greeks lumped together all foreigners who did not speak Greek as “barbarians”58—people whose speech sounded to Greeks like the repetition of the meaningless sounds “bar, bar.” Greeks, like Thracians and other slave-holding peoples, found it easier to enslave people whom they considered different from themselves and whose ethnic and cultural otherness made it easier to disregard their shared humanity. Greeks also enslaved fellow Greeks, however, especially those defeated in war, but these Greek slaves were not members of the same polis as their masters. Rich families prized Greek slaves with some education because they could be made to serve as tutors for children, for whom there were no publicly-financed schools in this period.

The Extent of Slavery

Chattel slavery became widespread in Greece only after about 600 B.C. Eventually, slaves became cheap enough that people of moderate means could afford one or two59. Nevertheless, even wealthy Greek landowners never acquired gangs of hundreds of slaves like those who maintained Rome's water system under the Roman Empire or worked large plantations in the southern United States before the American Civil War. Maintaining a large number of slaves year around in ancient Greece would have been uneconomical because the cultivation of the crops grown there called for short periods of intense labor punctuated by long stretches of inactivity, during which slaves would have to be fed even while they had no work to do.

By the fifth century B.C., however, the number of slaves in some city-states had grown to as much as one-third of the total population. This percentage still means that most labor was performed by small land-owners and their families themselves, sometimes hiring free workers. The special system of slavery in Sparta60 provides a rare exception to this situation.

The Occupations of Slaves

Rich Greeks everywhere regarded working for someone else for wages as disgraceful, but their attitude did not correspond to the realities of life for many poor people, who had to earn a living at any work they could find. Like free workers, chattel slaves61 did all kinds of labor. Household slaves62, often women, had the physically least dangerous existence. They cleaned, cooked, fetched water from public fountains63, helped the wife with the weaving64, watched the children65, accompanied the husband as he did the marketing, and performed other domestic chores. Yet they could not refuse if their masters demanded sexual favors. Slaves who worked in small manufacturing businesses, like those of potters66 or metalworkers67, and slaves working on farms often labored alongside their masters. Rich landowners, however, might appoint a slave supervisor to oversee the work of their other slaves in their fields while they remained in town. The worst conditions of life for slaves obtained for those men leased out to work in the narrow, landslide-prone tunnels of Greece's few silver and gold mines68. The conditions of their painful and dangerous job were dark, confined, and backbreaking. Owners could punish their slaves with impunity, even kill them without fear of meaningful sanctions. (A master's murder of a slave69 was regarded as at least improper and perhaps even illegal in Athens of the classical period, but the penalty may have been no more than ritual purification.) Beatings severe enough to cripple a working slave and executions of able-bodied slaves were probably infrequent because destroying such property made no economic sense for an owner.

Public Slaves

Some slaves enjoyed a measure of independence by working as public slaves70 owned by the city-state instead of an individual. They lived on their own and performed specialized tasks. In Athens, for example, public slaves in the classical period had the responsibility for certifying the genuineness of the city-state's coinage as well as many other administrative jobs in city service. Athenian public slaves also formed a corps of assistants to the citizen magistrates responsible for the punishment of criminals, and the city-state's official executioner was a public slave. In this way, citizens were able to maintain an arm's-length distance between themselves and distasteful jobs like the arrest and execution of fellow citizens.

Slaves attached to temples also lived without individual owners because temple slaves belonged to the god of the sanctuary, for which they worked as servants. Some female temple slaves served as sacred prostitutes71 at the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, and their earnings helped support the sanctuary.

The Lives of Slaves

Under the best conditions, household slaves72 with humane masters might live lives free of violent punishment. They might even be allowed to join their owners' families on excursions and attend religious rituals such as sacrifices. Without the right to a family of their own, however, without property, without legal or political rights, they lived an existence alienated from regular society. In the words of an ancient commentator, chattel slaves lived lives of “work, punishment, and food.”73 Their labor helped maintain the economy of Greek society, but their work rarely benefited themselves. Yet despite the misery of their condition, Greek chattel slaves—outside Sparta74—almost never revolted on a large scale, perhaps because they were of too many different origins and nationalities and too scattered to organize themselves for rebellion. Sometimes owners freed their slaves voluntarily75, and some promised freedom at a future date to encourage their slaves to work hard in the meantime. Freed slaves did not become citizens in Greek city-states but instead mixed into the population of resident foreigners (the metics). They were expected to continue to help out their former masters when called upon.

Women and the Household

The emergence of slavery76 in the city-state on a large scale gave women new and bigger responsibilities for the household (oikos, oikia), especially rich women, whose lives were especially circumscribed by the responsibility of managing their large households. As partners in the maintenance of the family with their husbands77, who spent their time outside farming, participating in politics, and meeting their male friends, wives were entrusted with the management of the household ( oikonomia 78, whence our word “economics”). They were expected to raise the children,79, supervise the preservation and preparation of food, keep the family's financial accounts, weave cloth to make clothing,80, direct the work of the household slaves, and nurse them when they were ill. Households thus depended on women, whose work permitted the family to be economically self-reliant and the male citizens to participate in the public life of the polis .

Women Outside the Home

Poor women worked outside the home, often as small-scale merchants81 in the public market that occupied the center of every settlement. Only at Sparta did women have the freedom to participate in athletic training along with men.82 Women played their major role in the public life of the city-state by participating in funerals, state festivals, and religious rituals. Certain festivals were reserved for women only, especially in the cult of the goddess Demeter, whom the Greeks credited with teaching them the indispensable technology of agriculture83. As priestesses, women also fulfilled public duties in various official cults; for example, women officiated as priestesses84 in more than forty such cults in Athens by the fifth century B.C. Women holding these posts often enjoyed considerable prestige, practical benefits such as a salary paid by the state, and greater freedom of movement in public.

Marriage and Divorce

Upon marriage women became the legal wards of their husbands, as they previously had been of their fathers while still unmarried. Marriages were arranged by men. A woman's guardian85—her father, or if he were dead, her uncle or her brother—would commonly betroth her to another man's son while she was still a child, perhaps as young as five. The betrothal was an important public event conducted in the presence of witnesses. The guardian on this occasion repeated the phrase that expressed the primary aim of marriage: “I give you this woman for the plowing [procreation] of legitimate children.”86 The marriage itself customarily took place when the girl was in her early teens and the groom ten to fifteen years older. Hesiod advised a man to marry a virgin in the fifth year after her puberty, when he himself was “not much younger than thirty and not much older.”87 A legal marriage consisted of the bride's going to live in the house of her husband. The procession to his house served as the ceremony. The woman brought with her a dowry88 of property (perhaps land yielding an income, if she were wealthy) and personal possessions that formed part of the new household's assets and could be inherited by her children. Her husband was legally obliged to preserve the dowry and to return it in case of a divorce89. Procedures for divorce were more concerned with power than law: a husband could expel his wife from his home, while a wife, in theory, could on her own initiative leave her husband to return to the guardianship of her male relatives. Her freedom of action could be constricted, however, if her husband used force to keep her from leaving.90Except in certain cases in Sparta91, monogamy was the rule in ancient Greece, and a nuclear family structure (that is, husband, wife, and children living together without other relatives in the same house) was common, although at different stages of life a married couple might have other relatives living with them. Citizen men could have sexual relations without penalty with slaves, foreign concubines, female prostitutes, or willing preadult citizen males. Citizen women had no such sexual freedom, and adultery carried harsh penalties for wives, as well as the male adulterer, except at Sparta when a woman was childless, the aim of the liaison was to produce children, and the husband gave his consent.

Paternalism and Women

More than anything else, a dual concern to regulate marriage and procreation and to maintain family property underlay the placing of the legal rights of Greek women and the conditions of their citizenship under the guardianship of men. The paternalistic attitude of Greek men toward women was rooted in the desire to control human reproduction92 and, consequently, the distribution of property, a concern that gained special urgency in the reduced economic circumstances of the Dark Age. Hesiod, for instance, makes this point explicitly in relating the myth of the first woman, named Pandora93. According to the legend, Zeus, the king of the gods, created Pandora as a punishment for men when Prometheus, a divine being hostile to Zeus, stole fire from Zeus to give it to Prometheus's human friends, who had hitherto lacked that technology. Pandora subsequently loosed “evils and diseases” into the previously trouble-free world of men by removing the lid from the jar or box the gods had filled for her. Hesiod then refers to Pandora's descendants, the female sex, as a “beautiful evil” for men ever after, comparing them to drones who live off the toil of other bees while devising mischief at home.94 But, he goes on to say, any man who refuses to marry to escape the “troublesome deeds of women” will come to “destructive old age” without any children to care for him. After his death, moreover, his relatives will divide his property among themselves. A man must marry, in other words, so that he can sire children to serve as his support system in his waning years and to preserve his holdings after his death by inheriting them. Women, according to Greek mythology, were for men a necessary evil, but the reality of women's lives in the city-state incorporated social and religious roles of enormous importance.

1 Thuc. 1.16.1

2 Aesch. Eum. 288, Athens, Parthenon [Building]

Athena on coins

3 Thuc. 1.10.2

4 Xen. Const. Lac. 13.2

5 Hom. Il. 1.447, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for sacrifice, Sacrifice on vases

6 Aristot. Pol. 1.1252b 28

7 Hdt. 3.80.6, Hdt. 3.142.3, Hdt. 5.37.2, Thuc. 4.78.3

8 Thuc. 3.94.4, Greek dictionary entry for ethnos, References to ethnos, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for confederacies, References to leagues

9 Photos of Lesbos, Thuc. 8.23.2, Strab. 13.2.1, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Lesbos

10 Lysias 22.1

11 Aristot. Pol. 1.1253a 29

12 Hdt. 1.146.1, Thuc. 1.12.4, Thuc. 7.57.4, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Ionia, Ionian Sites

13 Thuc. 1.12.4

14 Hom. Od. 1.182

15 Hdt. 7.51.2, Thuc. 6.82.4

16 Hom. Od. 6.7

17 Hdt. 1.146.2

18 Hdt. 4.150.2, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Cyrene, Other references to Cyrene

19 Aristot. Pol. 5.1306b 22-31, Strab. 6.3.2

20 Hdt.1.14.2-3

21 Hdt. 1.94.1

22 Hdt. 5.58.1

23 Thuc. 1.13.5, Corinth [Site], References to Corinth

24 Hdt. 2.176.2, Corinthian pottery

25 Vases found in Etruria


Delphi [Site], Paus. 10.5.5, Hdt. 1.19.2

27 Hdt. 4.151.1, Aesch. Eum. 1 ff., Other references to Pythia

28 Aristot. Pol. 1.1252b 28

29 Hes. Th. 501

30 Hes. WD 264

31 Hdt. 3.80.6, Hdt. 3.142.3, Hdt. 5.37.2, Thuc. 4.78.3

32 TRM OV 11.1

33 Servants depicted on vases

'Living tools'- Aristot. Pol. 1.1253b 32, Hom. Il. 18.28, Hom. Od. 1.398, Aeschin. 1.54, Diod. 13.102.1, Aristot. Econ. 2.1352b 20, Aristot. Pol. 1.1255b 20, Dem. 24.167, Other references to slaves

34 Lys. 12.4, Andoc. 1.15, Thuc. 2.13.7

35 Politis in Soph. El. 1229, References to politis

36 Male guardian in Isaeus 6.32

37 Aristoph. Thes. 295, Dem. 59.116

38 HH 2.473

39 TRM OV 10.1.7


Hoplites on vases, References to hoplites

41 Xen. Mem. 3.10.9

42 References to phalanx

43 Hdt. 7.158.4, Thuc. 2.13.8

44 Archers on vases

45 TRM OV 5.16

46 Aristoph. Ach. 19

47 Hdt. 3.80.6, Hdt. 3.142.3, Hdt. 5.37.2, Thuc. 4.78.3

48 TRM OV 5.2, Ps. Xen. Const. Ath. 1.2

49 Hdt. 2.167.2

50 TRM OV 6.16

51 TRM OV 5.16

52 TRM OV 5.2

53 Servants on vases

Aristot. Pol. 1.1253b 32, Aristot. Pol. 1.1255b 20, Hom. Il. 18.28, Hom. Od. 1.398, Hdt. 5.6.1, Plut. Nic. 4.2, Aeschin. 1.54, Diod. 13.102.1, Hes. WD 406, Dem. 24.167, Other references to slaves

54 TRM OV 5.20

55 Aristot. Pol. 1.1253b 32

56 TRM OV 5.20

57 Hdt. 5.6.1

58 Hom. Il. 2.867, Aesch. Ag. 1051, References to barbarians, Barbarians on vases

59 Hes. WD 406

60 TRM OV 6.6

61 TRM OV 5.20

62 Xen. Ec. 10.10



Berlin inv. 31426 [Vase]

65 London E 219 [Vase]

66 Potters on vases

67 Berlin F 2294 [Vase]

68 Plut. Nic. 4.2

69 Antiphon 6.4, Plat. Euthyph. 4c

70 Aristoph. Lys. 436, Aeschines 1.54, Diod. 13.102.1, TRM OV 5.20

71 Strabo 8.6.20

72 TRM OV 5.20

73 Aristot. Econ. 1.1344a 35

74 Thuc. 1.101.2

75 Dem. 36.47, Dem. 59.2

76 TRM OV 5.20

77 Xen. Ec. 3.15

78 Plat. Laws 694c, Plat. Laws 809c, Hom. Od. 1.356, Eur. Med. 249, Berlin inv. 31426 [Vase]

79 London E 219 [Vase]


81 Aristoph. Thes. 446, Olynthus, House A iv 9 [Building], Olynthus, House A v 10 [Building]

82 Xen. Const. Lac. 1.4

83 Isoc. 4.28, TRM OV 10.1.7

84 Women pouring libations on vases, Priestesses on vases

85 Isaeus 6.32

86 Plat. Crat. 406b, Greek dictionary entry for aroô

87 Hes. WD 697

88 Lys. 19.9, Aristot. Pol. 2.1270a 20

89 Andoc. 4.14, Dem. 30.15

90 Plut. Alc. 8.3-4

91 Xen. Const. Lac. 1.7

92 Aesch. Eum. 658

93 References to Pandora, Hes. WD 82

94 Hes. Th. 570

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (100):
    • Aeschines, Against Timarchus, 54
    • Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1051
    • Aeschylus, Eumenides, 1
    • Aeschylus, Eumenides, 288
    • Aeschylus, Eumenides, 658
    • Andocides, On the Mysteries, 15
    • Andocides, Against Alcibiades, 14
    • Antiphon, On the Choreutes, 4
    • Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae, 295
    • Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae, 446
    • Aristotle, Economics, 1.1344a
    • Aristotle, Economics, 2.1352b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 1.1252b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 1.1253a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 1.1253b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 1.1255b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1270a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 5.1306b
    • Demosthenes, Against Timocrates, 167
    • Demosthenes, Against Onetor, 15
    • Demosthenes, For Phormio, 47
    • Demosthenes, Against Neaera, 116
    • Demosthenes, Against Neaera, 2
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.102.1
    • Euripides, Medea, 249
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.146.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.146.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.14.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.19.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.94.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.167.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.176.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.142.3
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.80.6
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.150.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.151.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.37.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.58.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.6.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.158.4
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.51.2
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 501
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 570
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 264
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 406
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 697
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 82
    • Homer, Iliad, 18.28
    • Homer, Iliad, 1.447
    • Homer, Iliad, 2.867
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.182
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.356
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.398
    • Homer, Odyssey, 6.7
    • Homeric Hymns, Hymn 2 to Demeter, 473
    • Isaeus, Philoctemon, 32
    • Isocrates, Panegyricus, 28
    • Lysias, On the Property of Aristophanes, 9
    • Lysias, Against Eratosthenes, 4
    • Lysias, Against the Corn Dealers, 1
    • Pseudo Xenophon, Constitution of the Athenians, 1.2
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10.5.5
    • Plato, Laws, 694c
    • Plato, Laws, 809c
    • Plato, Euthyphro, 4c
    • Plato, Cratylus, 406b
    • Sophocles, Electra, 1229
    • Strabo, Geography, 13.2.1
    • Strabo, Geography, 6.3.2
    • Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.101.2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.10.2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.12.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.13.5
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.16.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 2.13.7
    • Thucydides, Histories, 2.13.8
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.94.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.78.3
    • Thucydides, Histories, 6.82.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 7.57.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.23.2
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 3.10.9
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 13.2
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 1.4
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 1.7
    • Xenophon, Economics, 10.10
    • Xenophon, Economics, 3.15
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 19
    • Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 436
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 10.1.7
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 5.16
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 5.2
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 5.20
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 6.16
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 6.6
    • Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, a)ro/w
    • Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, e)/qnos
    • Plutarch, Alcibiades, 8.3
    • Plutarch, Nicias, 4.2
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